Episode 2: “Refuge”


Carrie: Alright, howdy lit-nerds. Welcome back to St. Mary’s Modcasts. We’re here finding “Refuge” with Terry Tempest Williams. I am Carrie “Peregrine Falcon” Villarreal, and joining me today are

Leigh Ann: Leigh Ann “Great-Horned Owl” Cowan.

Forest: Forest “Whistling Swan” LeBaron.

Lane: Lane “Birds-of-Paradise” Riggs.

Carrie: And this group of chickadees are going to be discussing “Refuge” by Terry Tempest Williams, who is the Provostial Scholar at Dartmouth College. Her writing has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Orion Magazine, and numerous anthologies world-wide, as a crucial voice for ecological consciousness and social change.

So, ladies, how do we find refuge in a world that never stops?

Forest: That’s a hard question. 

Leigh Ann: And it’s one that Terry tries to answer throughout her book. It’s what she’s searching for herself.

Forest: The world can always be constantly against you fighting, fighting, fighting, and you can always lose hope, but you have to find the hope and the things that you think constitutes as a refuge to yourself.

Carrie: And I think that that’s what she means when she pulls in Emily Dickinson’s first line of “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.” And she says here that it reminds us, as the birds do, of liberation and pragmatism, of belief. And I think that belief then, is something that kind of anchors this discussion and this journey, if you will, of going through the destruction of the bird refuge, and then the fight with cancer that her mother has to undergo.

Forest: The fight, the thing that takes over her mother’s body, the thing that takes over the land that she loves so much and takes away from the home that she sees for the birds, that she watches on a daily basis; her consistency, basically.

Carrie: Yeah, so, so let’s chat a little bit about how she weaves these two stories together, right, because she’s talking a little about tracking the rise of the Great Salt Lake and the destruction of the bird refuge, with this experience with cancer that her mother goes through.

So, let’s talk a little bit about that because it’s a really interesting structure that she uses to build those stories.

Leigh Ann: But, throughout the stories, each of the stories each chapter begins with a different bird. But they’re not necessarily about the birds, it’s about, as you were talking about, the rise of the Great Lake and it’s being interwoven with her mother’s cancer. 

This is called a braided narrative. So, it’s basically, you take two or more stories and you blend them together so that they become synonymous with each other.

Carrie: And so how is that then, do we think, does that help her get this message across or help her answer what refuge is?

Forest: I think so. I think when you’re thinking about it, when we’re going through a big change in our life, we’re gonna find something that kind of sets the standard for our days, so we wake up

and it’s like, if I go about my day in a normal way, then nothing bad could happen. But, you never know, and so I think that’s kind of like the, like, underlying anxiety in the novel. 

You can go about your day and you can focus on the things that you always focus on, but you don’t know what’s going to happen, and that… 

Leigh Ann: Yeah, the uncertainty of the future.

Carrie: Yeah, and like, there’s some beautiful parts in here where she’s talking with her mom, and she brings in letters that her mother’s writing to her, and at the same time that her mother is going through cancer, there is, I think her name is Tamara, a friend of the family is also undergoing treatment for, I believe, a brain tumor, and things like that; the mother really just remember lots of conversations about how Tempest’s–I just blanked. 

Terry Tempest Williams’ mother says that she just wants to be able to live, because she doesn’t know what moment is going to…when it could be over. And she said that that, like, makes her realize that she does wanna live, like it makes the days much sweeter. 

Forest: You can also see her kind of come to terms with it because she’s explaining this process to this woman who is about to go through surgery or just went through surgery for a brain tumor

and it’s like, look, like, it’s not your fault, you know. Sometimes you just gotta be able to look at it and find the joy in life while you’re still able to live. 

And I think that’s really important, because she tries to instill this in Terry throughout the whole entire thing. And you see this kind of push-back from Terry throughout it because she’s like, no, I just want you to live, like I don’t want anything to change, and so…

Carrie: Yeah, so, so then what does–I mean, what, as somebody who has gone through that with their mother, that whole push for, you know, my mother to live, even though she has this, that illness that is going to be terminal and it’s going to end her life, like what does that like, how does Terry explore this mother/daughter relationship?

And how does that maybe become an anchor for her? In terms of growth.

Forest: I think you kind of see it in the relationship between not only, like, mother and daughter, but also grandmother, because grandmother is obviously mother to her mother and so that connection throughout pretty much remains the same, so all these women are, like, lined up to take care of each other. And you really sense that bond and that strength that they provide

to each other, like, not only through obviously their familial relationship, but as women.

Like, you know, if you have one breast, that’s fine. Like, something happened to your body and it’s not your fault. 

And so, I found when I read the one quote at the very end, when she’s laying there with her mom and she says, like, she lays her head on her lap, she says like, “I laid my head on her lap and closed my eyes, I could not tell if it was my mother’s fingers coming through my hair, or the wind.”

And to me, that – it’s so important because that symbolism is there because even when her mother is gone, or her grandmother is gone, she doesn’t have anybody to comfort her, the feeling of the wind in her hair is always going to bring that memory back.

Leigh Ann: It makes the physical mother synonymous with Mother Nature.

Carrie: And that’s really interesting, if you think about, you know, we always say “Mother Nature,” and really, like why do we do that?

Leigh Ann: Because the earth nourishes us; the animals feed from the earth, and then we get our

nourishment from them. So it’s this whole idea because when we’re born, we feed from our mothers’ breasts, so.

Carrie: And then the land feeds us.

And that was something that, I remember, like very early on, when we do learn that Terry’s mother does have cancer, she’s calling her up and she’s like, I don’t want to do this, you know, a

month ago I learned I had cancer, and Terry’s like, what do you mean? It’s been a month and you haven’t gone. She’s like, well I really wanted to go and she wanted to go on–and like be involved in nature, because she’s like, nature can heal.

Forest: As her meditation process.

Carrie: Yes. 

Forest: Being, laying on the ground and being one with nature and being influenced by the elements that were surrounding her, kind of gave her inner peace. And you see that all throughout, especially with Terry, when she’s kind of going into these inhospitable places and doing her work and just going to find peace or find some semblance of peace.

And she, that’s where she goes, and she basically–

Leigh Ann: Like her refuge. 

Forest: Right. And like, you never hear about her home, like, like obviously we’re there at some point, like the place that she sleeps, and lives in, but, she kind of has this sense of like, like an out-of-body experience every time she goes into nature. And you really feel that connection, which I think is, one of the better pieces of symbolism that she goes throughout to establish change.

Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. And like talking about how like you–Mother Nature–and that we call it Mother Nature because it’s the land that nourishes us and that the mother and even Terry, they seek out the healing of being in nature.

It’s really interesting to me because she mentions in here, and she’s like talking about all the

euphemisms for cancer, like, loaded throughout the text. She calls it, it’s referred to with like, military metaphors.

And she asks these two questions, “I wonder if this kind of aggression waged against our own bodies is counterproductive to healing?” “Can we be at war with ourselves and still find peace?”

Forest: And that’s a hard question to answer, too, when you’re–when you’re thinking about the world around us and the natural elements, you know, the socio-economical elements, it’s just a hard–where do you find refuge in a place where, essentially, it’s a–an inhospitable environment for everybody involved.

Leigh Ann: It’s just like, we have to find such a fragile balance to live here, like the lake, if it rises or falls even an inch, it just–everything is out of order, it’s not stable.

Carrie: Absolutely.

So, I keep going back to this because it is such an anchor-point of the thing, but, you mention this, though, that our refuge does not have to be synonymous with home, right. And I wonder then, can we find refuge in solitude?

Leigh Ann: Oh yeah. 

Forest: Yeah, hands down.

She only – when she’s sitting there, and she’s looking at and watching these birds, she has this–these quiet moments that she’s not necessarily getting when she’s at work or when she’s at her parent’s house. 

It’s one of these things where you can sit and you can look at the stars or you can look at the water and put your feet in the water and you can look at the birds, and you can watch the

other animals, and you can find some–a sense of peace in their consistency, and in their ability to survive and go through these changes that is affecting them, through their environment.

Carrie: I mean, I think that’s a very eloquent point because usually, when we are seeking refuge, or seeking healing, we go to the doctor, or we go to a therapist, or we’re going through a hard time, and we reach out to others–no, not everybody does that, obviously, but it’s just this really interesting thing that–that turning into ourselves, we can find some kind of peace there.

And really, like, I really love that this is working on–it really–highlights and illustrates the strength of women, the resiliency of women, in the face of insurmountable odds, almost.

Forest: Yeah, the last chapter–“The Clan of the One-Breasted Women”–I think that really drives that notion and that point home, that, you know, our mothers, they give life to us, they grow us in their wombs and then we come out and we’re reliant on them, you know, on their bodies, to support our growth and–our mind growth, our body growth, our everything–and to think of, you know, that connection that you have with your mother or, to your grandmother if something happens to your mother. 

I think it’s so important because it shows that you know, where we would be without these women?

Leigh Ann: It also makes me think like, we’re so dependent, like, mothers–like, children and fathers and siblings–like, everyone depends on the mother, so when is the mother supposed to find solitude? 

Lane: Well, and within the book, when Terry’s mother first gets sick and they’re all young, she says we weren’t there for her then. Like the dad and the children couldn’t accept it, and she had to fight it all alone. And then it’s like, now we’re here for her, but still. She had to fight both of these battles and it showed her bravery and her strength.

Carrie: So–okay, so then, so what is our answer then?

How do we find refuge in a world that won’t stop? How do we do that? How do we find that?

Forest: Through acceptance of change.

And I think you can really see that on that quote, where she says, “My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death, then I can begin to find refuge in change.”

And I just–like, not even if you just look at it through death, if you look at it through anything, if I can just make it through the next five minutes, then I can do it. If I can make it through this next–I don’t know–hour, then I can do anything.

Because it’s what your mindset is. And so, in order to make it through, you have to kind of set that basis for yourself, to find a foundation.

Lane: Well, and like Terry, I think every now and then, you have to get away; you have to go to–go on a hike, you have to go swimming in the Great Salt Lake, and just take a minute to yourself and try to recover your senses.

Carrie: Alright.

Well, I think that this is definitely some advice that we can definitely take advantage of in a world that is just so loud; find a moment of silence to accept that change. 

Forest: Absolutely.

Carrie: Alright. 

Well, thank you lit-nerds for joining us. We hope that you join us for our next podcast. Until then, happy reading.

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